COLUMBIA (AP) — An inmate on South Carolina’s death row for more than two years is set to get a new trial after a state Supreme Court ruling that a judge should have let the man testify in his own defense.
In its unanimous decision Wednesday, the state Supreme Court wrote that, even if defense attorneys thought their client’s testimony might harm their case, a trial judge should have allowed Raymondeze Rivera , 34, to speak on his own behalf.
“The circumstances of this case are particularly disturbing,” the court wrote. “Appellant’s testimony may have been prejudicial to his case but that cannot serve as a basis for the trial court to prevent him from taking the stand.”
Rivera has been on death row since his 2010 conviction in the strangling of Kwana Burns. The 28-year-old mother’s body was discovered in her Anderson home in December 2006, bound with her 9-year-old son’s jump rope. Her 2-year-old daughter was discovered asleep near her, unharmed.
Rivera, who is originally from Sarasota, Fla., is also serving a life sentence for the death of another young Anderson mother killed two days before Burns. Authorities have said Rivera confessed to tying up and suffocating 27-year-old Asha Wiley after she begged for her life.
At his trial in Wiley’s death, Rivera testified that he had gone to Anderson to kill Burns, and then killed Wiley because she knew too much.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court cited lengthy passages from Rivera’s trial in Burns’ death, including conversations he had with the trial judge about his right to testify on his own behalf and his desire to do so.
The judge went on to say that, while Rivera had the right to testify, he wouldn’t allow it because the defendant refused to give specifics on what he planned to say on the stand, just that it had to do with Burns’ death. The value of that testimony, the trial judge said, was “substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues or misleading the jury.”
Rivera objected, saying his constitutional rights were being violated by denying him the opportunity to testify. In its opinion, the Supreme Court wrote that even that small amount of detail about his testimony should have been enough to put the defendant on the stand.
“It pertained to the killing of the victim, which was the precise basis for the prosecution,” the court wrote. “Indeed, it is difficult to fathom anything more logically connected to the fundamental issue in this capital murder trial than a defendant’s own testimony about the killing.”
The court’s decision overturns both Rivera’s conviction and death sentence in Burns’ death, and no new trial date has been set. State prosecutors and an attorney for Rivera did not immediately return messages seeking comment.